Ruhama Goussinsky, Department of Human Services, Emek Yezreel College, Afula, Israel
Purpose – The purpose of this research is to investigate the direct and moderating effect of negative affectivity (NA) (Study 1) and self-efficacy (Study 2) on the relationship between customer verbal aggression and three forms of emotion-focused coping strategies: behavioral disengagement, seeking emotional support, and venting negative emotions.
Design/methodology/approach – Two samples of service workers were recruited from northern Israel in 2007-2008 (n=178 and n=516), and data were collected using self-reported questionnaires. Research hypotheses were tested using hierarchical regression analyses.
Findings – The results show that under high levels of exposure to customer aggression, employees with high NA were more likely to use behavioral disengagement than low-NA individuals, employees with low NA were less likely to vent negative emotions than high-NA individuals, and employees with high self-efficacy were less likely to use venting and emotional support than employees with low self-efficacy. In addition, self-efficacy was found to reduce the negative impact of customer aggression on emotional exhaustion.
Practical implications – Through appropriate training programs, service organizations can foster their employees' sense of trust in their own ability to cope with customer misbehavior and consequently reduce reliance on dysfunctional coping strategies.
Originality/value – While it has been established that verbal abuse from customers constitutes a common experience for many service workers, little is known about the manner in which workers cope with this particular job stressor and even less about the individual differences that may explain coping behaviors in this context. The present paper begins to bridge this gap and contributes to existing literature by showing that in addition to being predictors of dysfunctional coping strategies, both NA and self-efficacy may play a moderating role in the relationship between customer aggression and coping behaviors.
Customer aggression; Negative affectivity; Self-efficacy; Affective psychology; Individual behaviour; Emotion-focused coping strategies; Israel.
Journal of Service Management
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The “dark” side of service jobs, namely, interactions with verbally-abusive customers, has attracted increased interest over the past decade. Studies have demonstrated that some service workers are routinely subjected to aggression and mistreatment by customers. For example, it was found that the majority of call center employees reported between seven and ten encounters with aggressive customers per day (Grandey et al., 2004). Frequent interactions with abusive customers are also reported by social workers (Ringstad, 2005), flight attendants and other airline employees (Boyd, 2002), and by frontline employees in the hospitality industry (Harris and Reynolds, 2003; Reynolds and Harris, 2006). In fact, Reynolds and Harris (2006, p. 106) argue that deviant customer behaviors in the hospitality industry, “are not only common, but endemic.”
A considerable amount of research has shown that customer verbal abuse is a strong predictor of negative organizational outcomes, such as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, turnover intentions, and negative work-related attitudes (Ben-Zur and Yagil, 2005; Dormann and Zapf, 2004; Evers et al., 2001; Harris and Reynolds, 2003; Grandey et al., 2007; Lim and Yuen, 1998; van Dierendonck and Mevissen, 2002; Winstanley and Whittington, 2002). However, only a few studies have examined how service workers cope with aggressive and hostile customer behavior (Bailey and McCollough, 2000; Ben-Zur and Yagil, 2005; Reynolds and Harris, 2006), and while little is known about the manner in which workers cope with this particular job stressor, even less is known about the individual differences that may explain coping behaviors in this context.
The concept of coping refers to the cognitive or behavioral effort exerted to control or reduce demands created in stressful situations (Folkman, 1984). Coping with occupational stressors is similarly defined and reflects the effort, either cognitive or behavioral, to reduce demands that are greater than the individual's resources (Dewe, 2000). According to an early classification introduced by Lazarus and Folkman (1984), a distinction can be drawn between problem-focused and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping is directed at the stressor itself and includes strategies focusing on the individual's efforts to reach a solution and resolve the problem, such as seeking instrumental assistance or planning courses of action. Emotion-focused coping is aimed at reducing the emotional distress, triggered by the stressor, and it includes a wide range of responses, such as mental or behavioral disengagement from the stressor, denial, venting, self-blame, or seeking of emotional support.
Coping strategies are important factors in determining stress outcomes and subjective well-being (Ben-Zur, 2009; Day and Livingstone, 2001). Furthermore, it has been found that some of the behaviors used as a means of handling customer misbehavior are detrimental to the well-being of employees (Ben-Zur and Yagil, 2005; Reynolds and Harris, 2006), while others may lower the quality of service provided to customers (Bailey and McCollough, 2000), or even constitute gross misconduct (Reynolds and Harris, 2006). Given these negative consequences, it is essential not only to further investigate the means by which service workers cope with customer misbehavior, but also to understand the role of personal characteristics in determining employee coping strategies.
The main purpose of the present paper is to extend this area of research by considering two personal characteristics, namely negative affectivity (NA) and self-efficacy, which are likely to affect the choice of coping strategy that the individual utilizes in any given situation. Two studies are proposed with the following goals:
- Study 1 examines the direct and moderating role of NA on the relationship between customer aggression and three forms of emotion-focused coping strategies: behavioral disengagement, seeking of emotional support, and venting of negative emotions.
- Study 2 investigates whether self-efficacy moderates the relationship between customer aggression and emotion-focused coping strategies and also examines whether self-efficacy moderates the relationship between customer aggression and emotional exhaustion.
A greater understanding of how disposition and self-efficacy affect coping behaviors that might have a potentially negative impact on service worker performance, could not only help inform organizational practices mainly designed to achieve the goal of providing the best possible service to customers, it may also help managers to more effectively anticipate associated problems and serve in the development of service training programs.
The structure of this paper is as follows: the following section provides background information on coping strategies used by service providers in response to customer aggression and describes the three types of emotion-focused coping strategies that are addressed in this study. This is followed by an overview of empirical evidence regarding the association between NA and coping behavior. The methodology and the results of Study 1 are then presented and after a discussion on study results, an introduction to the second study is presented. Based on extant literature on self-efficacy, coping, and subjective well-being, the hypotheses of Study 2 are identified. Subsequent sections explain the methodology employed and report and discuss results obtained in Study 2. Finally, a general discussion is presented with implications of these findings for managers and possible directions for future research.
Strategies for coping with aggressive customers
How employees cope with workplace aggression is a question that has been studied extensively, but mainly in the context of abuse from supervisors or coworkers (Djurkovic et al., 2005; Hogh and Dofradottir, 2001; Olafsson and Johannsdottir, 2004). Although verbal abuse occurs more frequently from customers than from organization members (Grandey et al., 2007), the manner in which workers cope with customer aggression has received less empirical attention. Ben-Zur and Yagil (2005) found that the frequency of customer aggression experienced was positively related to emotion-focused coping strategies – including mental and behavioral disengagement, denial, and venting – but was unrelated to problem-focused strategies. Emotion-focused coping strategies were also identified by Bailey and McCollough (2000). In their study, based on both qualitative and quantitative data, it was found that the seeking of emotional support from other employees was the most common emotion-focused coping strategy. Avoidance/behavioral disengagement strategies, including behaviors such as leaving the location where the service is provided, were also frequently reported strategies for coping with difficult customers. In a study utilizing in-depth interviews, Reynolds and Harris (2006), revealed that employees in the hospitality industry adopt a wide range of tactics to cope with incidences of deviant customer behavior. Most of these tactics are aimed at reducing the emotional distress associated with or caused by customer misbehavior (i.e. consuming drugs, ignoring difficult customers, making attempts to feign emotion and psychologically distance themselves, making efforts to disengage and isolate themselves from both customers and other employees, or, in contrast, talking with their colleagues about distressing incidents).
The present research focuses on three coping behaviors: avoidance manifested by behavioral disengagement, seeking emotional support, and venting of negative emotions, all of which are considered emotion-focused coping strategies (Carver et al., 1989; Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010) and were selected because they may have the potential to lower the quality of service provided to customers.
Disengagement or avoidance coping, which is aimed at escaping from dealing with the stressor or the resulting distress emotions, refers to efforts to distance oneself from the stressful situation (Skinner et al., 2003). Examples of behavioral disengagement strategies in response to customer aggression include behaviors such as leaving the location where the service is provided, performing other tasks instead of providing service, ignoring difficult customers or taking a break (Bailey and McCollough, 2000; Reynolds and Harris, 2006). Disengagement coping is often emotion-focused, because it involves an attempt to escape feelings of distress (Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010). Although there is some evidence to suggest that in situations of low control – when an individual cannot change the cause or course of a stressful situation – emotion-focused coping strategies are more effective than problem-focused strategies (Lazarus, 1999; Semmer, 2003), avoidance strategies are clearly undesirable from the organization's perspective, since they may impair the quality of service provided to subsequent customers (Bailey and McCollough, 2000). van Dierendonck and Mevissen (2002), who examined the consequences of conflict-management strategies used by trolley car drivers, showed that, under conditions of excessively-aggressive passenger behavior, more avoidance conflict-management behavior was associated with less professional efficacy among drivers. They also found that reduced professional efficacy was associated with increased complaints by passengers and less customer friendliness.
Venting negative emotions
Venting is defined as the vocal and open expression of emotional feelings toward others (Carver et al., 1989; Folkman and Lazarus, 1985). Venting is considered an emotion-focused coping behavior (Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010; Day and Livingstone, 2001), which, in the context of service work, represents a dysfunctional response to customers that reflects negative employee emotions (Grandey et al., 2004). Bailey and McCollough (2000), found that rude behavior or displays of anger to customers were rarely reported, however, the researchers suggested that that this behavior is possibly more common than the data indicate. Given that the requirement for treating customers with friendliness and courtesy, regardless of their behavior, is perceived to be an in-role requirement for many service workers (Diefendorff et al., 2006; Schaubroeck and Jones, 2000; Zapf and Holz, 2006), expressing anger to customers is likely to be considered a grave violation of emotional display rules (Tschan et al., 2005). In fact, a recent study showed that the demand to completely suppress negative emotions when interacting with customers is consistent across several cultures, including Israel (Grandey et al., 2010). But apart from the fact that venting violates work demands and should have an adverse impact on the interaction, Tschan et al. (2005) also revealed that acting out one's negative emotions often does not result in enhanced well-being, but rather stirs up negative emotions.
Seeking emotional support
Seeking social support is defined as an individual's efforts to obtain informational, tangible, or emotional support from others (Folkman and Lazarus, 1985). Emotional support-seeking behavior refers to an individual's efforts to reach out for comfort and understanding and, with respect to the present study, includes talking about the difficult customer, sharing experiences, and venting emotions with coworkers (Yagil, 2008). Although this strategy might be employed without disrupting work routines, Bailey and McCollough (2000), found that it is often associated with taking a break. The authors argue that, while discussing their experiences with coworkers, service providers were not performing their duties as expected, and thus, talking about customers with other employees is a strategy that has the potential to lower service quality and may also infect others with the employee's negative affective state.
Based on the theoretical literature presented above, the following hypothesis is proposed:
H1. Customer aggression will be positively related to behavioral disengagement, support seeking, and venting.
Negative affectivity and coping
Positive and NA are considered to be stable and enduring dimensions of personality that are expressed by the tendency of individuals to experience positive or negative emotions over time and across situations (Larsen and Ketelaar, 1991; Watson and Slack, 1993). NA is characterized by a negative worldview, pessimism, a tendency to frequently experience negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, sadness, and distress, to react strongly to routine stress incidents, to dwell on the negative side of oneself and the world, and to have a negative overall orientation toward themselves, other people, and the world around them (George, 1992; George and Brief, 1996; Watson and Clark, 1984). By contrast, people with low NA tend to recover more easily from difficult emotional experiences, and generally display calmer behavior and a lower level of worry (Eysenck and Eysenck, 1991).
When exposed to the same stressful situation, high-NA individuals respond more negatively and appraise the situation as more stressful, compared to low-NA individuals (Iwanaga et al., 2004; Oliver and Brough, 2002). They also tend to estimate their ability to reach a solution as lower (Carver et al., 1989), and use more emotion-focused coping strategies – such as behavioral and mental disengagement, venting, denial, self-blame, and the seeking of emotional support – than those with low levels of NA (Bolger, 1990; Carver et al., 1989; Connor-Smith and Flachsbart, 2007; Gunthert et al., 1999; O'Brien and DeLongis, 1996; O'Brien et al., 2008).
Service employees with high-NA tend to appraise events of customer aggression as more threatening than low-NA employees (Grandey et al., 2004), and when they encounter behavior open to interpretation, they may be more disposed to attribute malicious intent to the customer, which in turn, tends to influence the intensity of the negative emotions they experience (Spector et al., 2000; Watson et al., 1988). Thus, when exposed to frequent interactions with aggressive customers, high-NA employees may be more likely to focus on dealing with the emotions associated with the stressor than low-NA employees. In a study that utilized an experimental design wherein the level of the stressor was manipulated rather than measured, it was found that individuals with high levels of NA were more reactive to stressful situations, and that NA predicted higher levels of emotion-focused coping strategies under conditions of high demand and low behavioral control (O'Brien et al., 2008). These findings suggest not only that a high-NA individual may respond differently to stressors compared to individuals with low levels of NA, but also that job stressors and NA may interact to predict the levels of reliance on emotion-focused coping strategies.
Therefore, the following hypotheses are proposed:
H2. NA will be positively related to behavioral disengagement, support seeking, and venting.
H3. NA and customer aggression will interact to affect coping: under high levels of exposure to customer aggression, high-NA individuals will be more likely to employ the three emotion-focused coping strategies than low-NA individuals.
Sample and procedure
The sample for this study was composed of call center employees, whose participation was voluntary. In most cases, participants were recruited using a snowball technique, whereby employees who agreed to participate were asked to recommend other participants. A cover letter invited voluntary participation in a survey study on emotion work requirements, and participants were given a written guarantee by the author that their responses would be confidential and used for research purposes only. Participants were asked to fill out and return a questionnaire. Most of the questionnaires were filled out at home and returned by mail. Surveys were distributed over three months from June to September, 2007. In all, 250 surveys were distributed and 187 returned (a response rate of 74.8 percent). The majority (70.5 percent) of participants were female. Age and tenure in current job were obtained in categorical classes: 34.8 percent of the respondents were between 20 and 25 years of age, 60.3 percent were between 26 and 35, and only 3.9 percent were 36 or older. Regarding tenure, 35.7 percent had been working for less than a year in their current job, about half of the participants (52.7 percent) had worked between 1 and 3 years, and only 11.5 percent had more than four years of experience in their current job. The majority (67.8 percent) were working part-time and 32.2 percent full time.
- Frequency of customer aggression was measured by seven items. Following Grandey et al. (2004), respondents were asked to, “[…] think about the last time a customer was upset, became very angry, and verbally attacked you.” Then they were asked to estimate the frequency of such incidents (5 – very often; several times a day; 4 – often, a few times a week; 3 – a few times a month; 2 – rarely, a few times a year; 1 – never or almost never). A further six items were derived from a scale originally developed to measure supervisors' abusive behavior (Tepper, 2000), and modified by Ben-Zur and Yagil (2005) to make the items applicable to customers. Respondents were asked to indicate on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (very often) the frequency with which they were the target of negative and rude treatment by customers at work (for example, “They express anger at me when they are mad for another reason”, and “They are rude to me”). Internal consistency reliability was α=0.85.
- NA was measured using the NA scale developed by Agho et al. (1992). The scale consisted of items such as “I often find myself worrying about something,” and “My feelings are hurt rather easily.” Respondents were asked to indicate on a five-point response scale, ranging from 1 (very slightly or not at all) to 5 (extremely), the extent to which they found each statement applicable to themselves. Internal consistency reliability was α=0.89.
- Strategies for coping with aggressive customers. The present study used an 11-item scale, nine of which were developed by Bailey and McCollough (2000). An additional two items were derived from a scale developed by Grandey et al. (2004), to measure the venting of negative emotions toward customers. The response scale ranged from 1 (never) to 5 (usually). Factor analysis with varimax rotation has confirmed that seeking of emotional support (e.g. “I talk with other employees about the customer to pour my heart out”), behavioral disengagement (e.g. “I try to occupy myself with other tasks so I will not have to deal with customers,” and “I take a break to cool down”) and venting of negative emotions (e.g. “I express my anger to the customer”) are distinct structures and separate coping strategies. The internal consistency reliabilities were α=0.61 for support seeking, α=0.86 for behavioral disengagement, and α=0.71 for venting. Behavioral disengagement was found to be positively correlated with venting (r=0.29, p<0.001), and with support seeking (r=0.18, p<0.05), but no significant correlation was found between support seeking and venting.
Preliminary analyses revealed that full-time workers scored significantly higher than part-time workers on both venting (M=2.02 [SD=0.87] and M=1.69 [SD=0.53], respectively), t=2.81, p=0.002; and behavioral disengagement (M=1.94 [SD=0.78] and M=1.61 [SD=0.56], respectively), t=2.71, p=0.008. Other individual characteristics (gender, age, and tenure) were not related to the coping strategies and were not included in further analyses. The most common coping strategy identified for dealing with aggressive customers was support seeking (M=3.07, SD=0.57), which was significantly more likely to be employed than both behavioral disengagement (M=1.73, SD=0.66), t=22.97, p<0.001, and venting (M=1.79, SD=0.67), t=20.44, p<0.001. No significant difference was found between behavioral disengagement and venting (t=0.81, p=0.41).
Table I presents means, standard deviations, and correlations between the research variables. Customer aggression was positively correlated with support seeking, but negatively correlated with venting and unrelated to behavioral disengagement. Thus, H1 was only partially supported. In line with the second hypothesis, NA was positively correlated with all three coping strategies.
To test the moderating role of NA on the customer aggression-coping strategies relationship, hierarchical moderated regression analyses were conducted with the three strategies as dependent variables. Hierarchical regression analysis assesses whether a block of independent variables makes a unique contribution to the explanation of the dependent variable (Cohen and Cohen, 1983). This procedure allows the impact of main-effect variables on the criterion variable to be tested prior to the interaction, and a moderating effect is indicated if the interaction term accounts for significant amounts of variance in the dependent variable beyond that accounted for by other variables in the model (Aiken and West, 1991). In the first step, the control variable (part-time/full-time work status) was entered. Frequency of customer aggression and NA were entered in the second step, and in the third and final step, the interaction variable (customer aggression×NA) was entered. To avoid multicollinearity, the independent, moderating, and interaction variables were centered around the mean scores (Aiken and West, 1991). As shown in Table II, the results of Step 2 were similar to those found for the correlation analyses; NA significantly predicted the three strategies, whereas customer aggression was positively related to support seeking, negatively related to venting, and unrelated to behavioral disengagement. However, the interaction term of customer aggression and NA was significant for both behavioral disengagement (β=0.88, p<0.05) and venting (β=0.94, p<0.05), and explained an additional 3 percent of the variance in each of the strategies.
The simple slopes of customer aggression on behavioral disengagement and venting were graphed separately for the participants who were below high levels (+1 SD) and low levels (−1 SD) of NA (Aiken and West, 1991). As shown in Figure 1, frequency of customer aggression was positively related to behavioral disengagement for those above average in NA. This relationship was much weaker for employees with below-average NA. Figure 2 shows that the negative relationship between customer aggression and venting was true only for employees with low NA. These employees were less inclined to vent their negative emotions the more they had to handle aggressive customers. Results of the regression analysis for each of the subgroups (while still controlling for work status), indeed revealed that customer aggression predicted disengagement (ββ=0.36, p<0.05) among individuals with high NA but not among those with low NA (β=0.02, ns). In addition, for the low NA group, the relationship between customer aggression and venting was negative and significant (β=−0.49, p<0.001), while for the high NA group, this relationship was positive, though not significant (β=0.19, p>0.05).
Results from this study indicate the importance of negative disposition in determining the extent to which emotion-focused coping strategies are employed. NA was found to be positively related to all three coping behaviors and under conditions of more aggressive customer behavior, high-NA employees were more likely to use behavioral disengagement, while low-NA individuals were less likely to vent their negative emotions.
Contrary to expectations, however, NA did not moderate the relationship between customer aggression and support seeking. Salami (2010, p. 488), recently suggested that under stressful conditions, persons high in NA may lash out in an effort to protect their own self-interests, rather than seek social support as an alternative coping mechanism. Naturally, both the venting of negative emotions and disengagement are more likely to entail a violation of job requirements than support seeking. Thus, the present results seem to support previous findings showing that, when confronted with high levels of stressful conditions at work (e.g. interpersonal conflicts, perceived unfairness, and workplace incivility), high-NA individuals used more counterproductive means – including retaliation or work avoidance – to cope with these job stressors than low-NA employees (Penney and Spector, 2005; Salami, 2010; Skarlicki et al., 1999). In accordance with these studies, the present results seem to suggest that, when exposed to stressful conditions, high-NA individuals are more likely to violate work norms and engage in behaviors that may negatively affect their performance than low-NA individuals. In fact, as mentioned above, under conditions of more aggressive behavior from customers, low-NA employees were less likely to vent their negative emotions to customers. Tan et al. (2003), proposed that under stressful conditions, such as frequent encounters with demanding customers, employees who are generally more sociable (low in NA) may use their social skills to generate more positive emotions to gain control over the demanding customer. Indeed, in their qualitative study, Bailey and McCollough (2000) reported that many respondents indicated that they treat difficult customers “extra nice.” Such “emotional labor tactics” to handle difficult customers were also reported in another qualitative study (Reynolds and Harris, 2006). Although the present study did not directly investigate the “being extra nice” strategy for handling aggressive customers, the results clearly suggest that the more they have to deal with aggressive customers, the less likely low-NA employees are to violate display rules.
Overall, the present results suggest that identification of factors that either alleviate or exacerbate the association between customer mistreatment and coping strategies may be of more importance than simply examining correlations. Thus, the main purpose of Study 2 is to investigate both the direct and moderating effects of self-efficacy on the relationship between customer aggression and emotion-focused coping strategies. In addition, Study 2 will investigate whether self-efficacy plays a moderating role in the relationship between customer aggression and employee well-being.
Self-efficacy, coping, and employee well-being
Self-efficacy is defined as “the belief in one's capacities to organize and execute the course of action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997, p. 3), or as a person's belief in his or her ability to successfully cope with difficult situations (Evers et al., 2001). Self-efficacy is considered domain-specific, so a person's efficacy beliefs will vary depending on the activity or domain to which they refer. The present study focuses on a specific form of work-related self-efficacy and adopts the definition whereby self-efficacy reflects service workers' belief in their ability to perform the emotion work required of them and to successfully cope with difficult or aggressive customers (Heuven et al., 2006). The concept of emotion work refers to the effort, planning, and control needed to express organizationally-desired emotions during service transactions (Morris and Feldman, 1996). Emotional display expectations typically comprise the demand to display positive emotions and to suppress negative emotions toward customers (Diefendorff et al., 2006; Schaubroeck and Jones, 2000). Therefore, interactions with aggressive customers are likely to require a great deal of effort and self-control so that employees are able to comply with job demands (Grandey et al., 2007).
According to social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1997), self-efficacy is a major determinant of an individual's task performance. Employees with high self-efficacy are likely to be challenged, rather than stressed, by difficult situations, persist longer when faced with new challenges or failures, and employ more effective coping strategies than employees with low self-efficacy. Indeed, empirical studies have shown that active and adaptive coping strategies were associated with higher self-efficacy beliefs, while low self-efficacy beliefs were associated with increased emotion-focused coping. For example, Li and Yang (2009), found that self-efficacy was positively related, both directly and indirectly – via motivation – to employing problem-focused strategies and was negatively related to avoidance strategies. The authors argued that self-efficacy affects the cognitive appraisal of one's ability to control a situation and when this ability is appraised as low, individuals will be more inclined to choose a strategy of avoidance and withdrawal. Shen (2009) found that teachers with high self-efficacy were more likely to use adaptive or problem-focused coping strategies, such as active coping and positive thinking, while those with low self-efficacy tended to use emotion-focused coping strategies. Salanova et al. (2006), found that self-efficacy was negatively related to emotion-focused coping strategies and moderated the relationship between job demands and the type of coping strategies used, i.e. employees with high levels of self-efficacy increase their active coping behaviors in response to high levels of work stressors.
Service workers with high levels of emotion work-related self-efficacy should be less threatened by negative customer behavior and when confronted with angry customers, may use their resources to successfully resolve a conflict situation (Heuven et al., 2006), rather than employ coping strategies designed to reduce the discomfort experienced. For individuals low in self-efficacy, frequent interactions with aggressive customers may result in increased stress and a greater reliance on emotion-focused coping strategies. Thus, it is assumed that customer aggression will only show a positive relationship with emotion-focused coping strategies for employees with low self-efficacy.
Therefore, the following hypotheses are proposed:
H4. Emotion work-related self-efficacy will be negatively related to behavioral disengagement, support seeking, and venting.
H5. Emotion-work related self-efficacy will interact with customer aggression to affect coping: under high levels of exposure to customer aggression, individuals with low self-efficacy will be more likely to employ the three emotion-focused coping strategies.
By affecting the cognitive appraisals of the situation and the coping strategies used, self-efficacy can function as a resource that may reduce the negative consequences of job stressors. Indeed, studies have shown that self-efficacy plays a moderating role in the relationship between stressors and strains. Jex and Bliese (1999), for instance, found that employees with high self-efficacy were less influenced by organizational stressors such as too long work hours and work overload, compared to employees with low levels of self-efficacy. Mikkelsen and Einarsen (2002) found that self-efficacy moderated the relationship between exposure to workplace bullying and psychological health complaints. A study conducted in Chinese companies found that self-efficacy was associated with increased well-being and moderated the relationship between work stressors and mental well-being (Siu et al., 2007).
With regard to the present study, it is assumed that emotion work-related self-efficacy will moderate the relationship between customer aggression and emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion refers to feelings of being emotionally drained and depleted of one's resources, and is considered to be the most critical dimension of job burnout (Boles et al., 2000; Lee and Ashforth, 1996; Wright and Cropanzano, 1998). Evers et al. (2001) argued that staff with high levels of self-efficacy in the context of caring and nursing behaviors, are not afraid of difficult tasks such as aggressive behavior of clients and indeed, may view such behavior as a challenge in their daily routine, resulting in lower levels of stress and burnout. Heuven et al. (2006) suggested that employees who believe in their ability to perform emotion work are more likely to use effective coping strategies to help defend themselves against the negative outcomes of emotionally-charged interactions with customers:
H6. Emotion work-related self-efficacy will interact with customer aggression to affect emotional exhaustion: under high levels of exposure to customer aggression, individuals with low self-efficacy will report more emotional exhaustion than individuals with high self-efficacy.
Sample and procedure
The sample consisted of 516 participants (69 percent women; 31 percent men) employed in various service roles: 34.3 percent had clerical or administrative jobs involving contact with the public; 29.1 percent were customer service representatives in call center organizations: 14.5 percent worked as salespeople: 6.0 percent were social workers or nurses, 3.5 percent were waiters: 3.1 percent were technicians providing customer service: and 2.1 percent were education workers. Participants were recruited by teams of undergraduate students and the criteria for recruitment and inclusion in the study were that employees provided service and interacted with customers as part of their daily work and had at least one year of experience in a service position. A cover letter invited voluntary participation in a survey study of emotion work requirements and included a guarantee that all responses would be confidential and used for research purposes only. To minimize concerns about confidentiality of responses, participants sealed their survey in envelopes provided by the students and the completed questionnaires were then returned to the author. Of the 525 completed surveys, nine were omitted from the study, since they did not meet the stated criteria. This resulted in 516 surveys available for analysis. Details of age and experience in service jobs were obtained in categorical classes: 36.2 percent of the participants were between 20 and 25 years of age, 25.2 percent were between 26 and 35, 15.9 percent were between 36 and 40, 11.2 percent were between 41 and 50, and 11.4 percent were over 50. With regard to tenure in service jobs, 30.2 percent had between one and two years of experience, 29.5 percent had between two and four years, 11 percent had between four and seven years, 8.9 percent had between seven and 15 years, and 20.3 percent had more than 15 years of experience in service jobs. The majority (64.9 percent) of respondents worked full-time. Less than one-seven third of participants (31.6 percent) reported that they provided service over the telephone. The remainder reported that most of their interactions with customers were face-to-face.
- Customer aggression. A three-item measure, modified by Grandey et al. (2007) to assess verbal abuse from customers, was employed with a response scale in which 1 – almost never; 2 – once in a few months; 3 – once or twice a month; 4 – once or twice a week; 5 – once or twice a day; 6 – several times a day. Reliability was α=0.88.
- Strategies for coping with aggressive customers. The coping strategies were measured with the same measure used in Study 1, and factor analysis identified the same factors, i.e. support seeking (internal reliability: α=0.74), behavioral disengagement (internal reliability: α=0.70), and venting (internal reliability: α=0.81). A positive correlation was found between behavioral disengagement and venting (r=0.43, p<0.001), and support seeking (r=0.38, p<0.001). A weak positive correlation was also found between support seeking and venting (r=0.15, p<0.01).
- Emotion work-related self-efficacy. Following Heuven et al. (2006; emotion work-related self-efficacy scale), self-efficacy was measured using a six-item scale referring to a person's belief in his or her ability to perform emotion work and cope with difficult customers (e.g. “I am capable of being friendly with customers, even if I do not feel that way” and “I am capable of successfully handling difficult or demanding customers”). The response scale ranged from 1 – completely untrue, to 5 – completely true. The internal reliability of the measure was α=0.79.
- Emotional exhaustion was measured using the six-item scale developed by Wharton (1993) (Sample item: “I feel emotionally drained by my work”). The response scale ranged from 1 (never) to 6 (every day). The internal reliability of the scale was α=0.91.
- Control variable. NA was included in this study as a control variable. Consistent with previous studies (Bowling et al., 2008; Diefendorff et al., 2005; Diefendorff and Richard, 2003; Oliver and Brough, 2002; Tan et al., 2003), the present study operationalized NA with neuroticism. Neuroticism is a personality trait, characterized by an increased sensitivity to emotional stimuli and a propensity to experience negative affect such as fear, worry, and anxiety (Costa and McCrae, 1987; Eysenck and Eysenck, 1991; Larsen and Ketelaar, 1991). Because of the similarity in their core dimensions (i.e. an individual's tendency to experience negative affective states over time and across situations), neuroticism has been suggested to correspond to NA (Watson and Tellegen, 1985; Watson et al., 1999). The neuroticism sub-scale from Saucier's (1994) measure of the big five personality factors was used to measure neuroticism. Respondents were asked to indicate how accurately each statement describes them at the present time (e.g. “I tend to be moody”). The response scale ranged from 1 – not at all, to 5 – very accurate. Internal reliability was α=0.70.
Preliminary analyses revealed that age and job tenure were both negatively correlated with behavioral disengagement (age r=−0.14, p<0.01; tenure r=−0.10, p<0.05) and emotional exhaustion (age r=−0.23, p<0.001; tenure r=−0.17, p<0.001). Women and men differed in coping strategies, with women scoring higher than men on support seeking (M=3.30 [SD=0.83] and M=3.10 [SD=0.91], respectively), t=−2.36 p<0.05, and lower on venting (M=2.41 [SD=0.94] and M=2.60 [SD=0.92], respectively), t=2.08, p<0.05. Full-time workers scored significantly higher than part-time workers on emotional exhaustion (M=3.63 [SD=1.36] and M=3.23 [SD=1.32], respectively), t=−3.16, p=0.002. Finally, employees in a job requiring face-to-face interaction with customers reported lower levels of emotional exhaustion (M=3.27, SD=1.31) than employees in jobs requiring voice-to-voice contact. (M=3.59, SD=1.40) t=2.55, p=0.01. Thus, all these individual characteristics (gender, age, tenure, work status, and form of interaction), were entered as control variables in further analyses. As in Study 1, support seeking (M=3.24, SD=0.86) was significantly more likely to be employed than both behavioral disengagement (M=2.36, SD=0.72), t=22.30, p<0.001 and venting (M=2.47, SD=0.93), t=15.01, p<0.001.
Table III presents the correlations between the research variables. Neuroticism was positively correlated with coping strategies and emotional exhaustion and self-efficacy demonstrated the opposite pattern. Emotional exhaustion was positively correlated with customer aggression, behavioral disengagement, and support seeking, and was unrelated to venting.
To test the Study 2 hypotheses, hierarchal regression analyses were conducted with the three emotion-focused coping strategies and emotional exhaustion as dependent variables. In the first step, the control variables (gender, age, tenure, work status, form of interaction, and neuroticism) were entered. Frequency of customer aggression and emotion work-related self-efficacy were entered in the second step, and in the third and final step, the interaction variable was entered (customer aggression×self-efficacy). To avoid multicollinearity, the independent, moderating, and interaction variables were centered around the mean scores. The results presented in Table IV show that neuroticism was positively related to coping strategies and emotional exhaustion. The main effect results demonstrate that after controlling for neuroticism and demographic variables, customer aggression predicted behavioral disengagement, support seeking, and emotional exhaustion, and self-efficacy was negatively related to behavioral disengagement and venting. Thus, H4 was partially supported.
Although after the control variables were entered, emotion work-related self-efficacy was not found to be directly related to support seeking, the interaction term of customer aggression and self-efficacy showed a significant effect on support seeking. The interaction term also proved to be significant for venting, but not for behavioral disengagement. Therefore, H5 was partially supported. To identify the form of the interactions, the regression models were plotted using values one standard deviation above and below the self-efficacy mean. Figures 3 and 4 show that under conditions of more aggressive behavior from customers, venting and support seeking were more likely to be used by individuals with low self-efficacy than their highly-efficacious colleagues. Results of the regression analysis for each of the subgroups (while taking into account the control variables), showed that for those with low self-efficacy, customer aggression was positively and significantly related to venting (β=0.37, p<0.05) and support seeking (β=0.31, p<0.05), but for high self-efficacy individuals, neither relationship was significant (venting:β=−0.08, p=0.46; support seeking:β=0.10, p=0.25).
Finally, the interaction of customer aggression with self-efficacy contributed significantly to the prediction of emotional exhaustion, thereby confirming H6. Figure 5 shows that the positive relationship between customer aggression and emotional exhaustion was stronger for individuals below average in self-efficacy than for those who were above average in self efficacy. Again, the subgroup analysis supported these findings. It was found that for the low self-efficacy group, customer aggression had a significant negative effect on emotional exhaustion (β=0.49, p<0.001). In the high self-efficacy group, the relationship was still negative but weaker (β=0.36, p<0.001).
Study 2 investigated the direct and moderating role of emotion work-related self-efficacy on the relationships between customer aggression and emotion-focused coping strategies and emotional exhaustion. Results of this study revealed two key points: first, frequency of customer aggression was positively related to support seeking and venting only for individuals with low levels of self efficacy. Otherwise stated, the more often low self-efficacious individuals had to handle aggressive customers, the more likely they were to use both of these strategies than highly self-efficacious individuals. Although the present results do not provide direct support for the relationship between emotion work-related self-efficacy and more effective coping strategies (i.e. problem-focused strategies), they do indicate that high self-efficacy beliefs are associated with a reduced use of maladaptive coping strategies in response to customer misbehavior.
Second, the present results demonstrate that emotion work-related self-efficacy buffered the detrimental effects of exposure to customer aggression. These findings are consistent with previous research showing that employees with high self-efficacy were less influenced by organizational stressors (Jex and Bliese, 1999; Mikkelsen and Einarsen, 2002; Siu et al., 2007), including emotionally-charged interactions with customers (Heuven et al., 2006).
The results obtained support the hypothesis that employees who have confidence in their abilities to handle negative interactions with customers are less likely to use the three types of emotion-focused coping strategies. However, the results also showed that emotion work-related self-efficacy did not moderate the relationship between customer aggression and behavioral disengagement. One factor that may affect the extent to which this strategy is used, is control at work. As previously stated, behavioral disengagement includes behaviors such as leaving the location where the service is provided, avoiding providing service, or taking a time-out. It is plausible that when job autonomy is low, behavioral disengagement is less likely to be employed by an individual, regardless of his or her level of self-efficacy. However, when autonomy is high, employees with low self-efficacy may find it easier to use this strategy in response to customer aggression. Thus, future studies should consider examining a 3-way interaction effect of customer mistreatment, job autonomy, and self-efficacy.
In recent years, it has been well established that verbal abuse from customers constitutes one of the most significant sources of stress for service workers (Dollard et al., 2003; Dormann and Zapf, 2004). Previous studies on service worker coping behavior have demonstrated that, in their efforts to reduce the emotional distress associated with or caused by customer misbehavior, employees adopt a wide range of coping strategies, some of which are detrimental to employee well-being and performance (Bailey and McCollough, 2000; Ben-Zur and Yagil, 2005; Reynolds and Harris, 2006; van Dierendonck and Mevissen, 2002). The present research was designed to investigate the role of negative disposition and emotion work-related self-efficacy in explaining three forms of emotion-focused coping strategies.
Of the three strategies, the seeking of emotional support was found to be the most common. It is possible that respondents underreported the frequency with which they use behavioral disengagement and venting due to social desirability. It is also possible that both strategies are, in fact, less frequently employed because they are more likely to expose the employee to organizational sanctions than support seeking. Although results from both studies showed that support seeking was significantly more common than the other two strategies, both venting and disengagement were less frequently reported in Study 1 than in Study 2. Furthermore, whereas support seeking was found in both studies to be significantly associated with customer aggression, behavioral disengagement was found to be positively related to customer aggression only in Study 2, and venting was found to be negatively related to customer aggression only in Study 1. It is possible that some, or all, of these differences may be due to the fact that Study 1 consisted of call center employees. Work in call centers is generally characterized by strict and severe display rules, high levels of performance monitoring through which these rules are enforced, and low levels of job autonomy (Deery et al., 2002; Holman et al., 2002; Wegge et al., 2006; Zapf et al., 2003). All of the above may restrict one's ability to avoid work or violate display rules. Indeed, the venting of negative emotions at customers was seldom reported by call center employees (Grandey et al., 2004). In addition, call centers are restricted to verbal interactions over the telephone. Employees are able to react differently to customer misbehavior depending on whether the communication is face-to-face or over the telephone. For instance, highly-monitored call center workers may have ways to express anger without violating organizational display norms, such as doodling or making faces to coworkers (Morris and Feldman, 1996). Furthermore, call center work often involves the intensive use of equipment (e.g. display screen equipment and telephone headsets), that keeps employees “tied to their desks” (Sprigg et al., 2007), and makes the use of behavioral disengagement less of an option for call center employees.
The present results seem to support the notion that strategies for coping with difficult customers may be specific to the context in which they occur (Reynolds and Harris, 2006). However, given the role of personal characteristics in explaining the use of these strategies, results of correlation between customer aggression and coping behaviors tell only part of the story. Perhaps of greater interest to academicians should be the identification of factors that affect the extent to which different types of coping behaviors are used.
A notable finding of this study is that all three emotion-focused coping strategies examined (venting negative emotions, seeking emotional support and behavioral disengagement), were positively correlated with NA and negatively correlated with emotion work-related self-efficacy. Furthermore, when exposed to intense levels of customer aggression, employees with high NA were found more likely to use behavioral disengagement than low-NA individuals, employees with low NA were less likely to use venting than high-NA individuals and employees with high self-efficacy were less likely to use venting and emotional support than employees with low self-efficacy. Overall, the present results support the important role of negative disposition and self-efficacy beliefs in determining coping behavior (Connor-Smith and Flachsbart, 2007; Li and Yang, 2009; O'Brien et al., 2008; Salanova et al., 2006; Shen, 2009).
Finally, emotion work-related self-efficacy was found to buffer the negative impact of customer aggression on emotional exhaustion. Research has shown that frequency of exposure to customer aggression is a strong predictor of emotional exhaustion, above and beyond other predictors, such as task-related stressors (Dormann and Zapf, 2004), and aggression from coworkers or supervisors (Grandey et al., 2007). In the present study, customer aggression was quite strongly correlated with emotional exhaustion (r=0.45, p<0.001). When controlling for the effect of neuroticism and socio-demographic variables, the relationship between frequency of exposure to customer aggression and emotional exhaustion remained significant (p<0.001). However, this positive relationship was significantly stronger for individuals with low (vs high) self-efficacy. These results, combined with those previously presented, support the notion that highly-efficacious service workers cope better with emotionally-demanding interactions with customers (Heuven et al., 2006).
Taken together, the results from both Studies 1 and 2 extend previous research on service worker coping strategies (Bailey and McCollough, 2000; Reynolds and Harris, 2006), by demonstrating that disposition and self-efficacy are likely to play a role in determining the extent to which employees adopt strategies typically regarded as maladaptive. The present results further suggest that, in addition to being predictors of coping strategies, individual differences may also moderate the relationship between customer misbehavior and coping behavior. Finally, the present findings also support the importance of distinguishing between types of emotion-focused coping strategy (Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010; Connor-Smith and Flachsbart, 2007).
Limitations and future research
This research has some methodological limitations. The data collected in the two studies were self-reported and this may result in common method variance. However, interaction effect is less likely to be explained by common method variance than linear relationships. Another concern is that the research design of the current study does not allow for causal conclusions to be drawn. For instance, it is possible that employees who are more exhausted induce more aggressive responses from customers (Grandey et al., 2007). Thus, customer aggression may also be a result – and not solely an antecedent – of a reduced sense of well-being. Furthermore, the postulated relationship between NA and self-efficacy and coping were based on theory and previous empirical findings. Although the causal interpretation is less of a problem in the context of personality constructs and when the reverse causality is unlikely, longitudinal data are required to validate the hypothesized causal relationships and to confirm whether the customer aggression-emotional exhaustion relationship is unidirectional or reciprocal. In addition, employee perception of customer behavior was not examined; since individual differences are likely to be significant at the stage of perceiving and interpreting customer behavior (Yagil et al., 2008), attempts to explain the causal relationship between both NA and self-efficacy and coping strategies might include an appraisal of customer aggression as a mediating factor.
Future research may consider examining the role of other personal and organizational resources in predicting different coping strategies. Positive affectivity, for instance, has been found to be positively correlated with problem-focused coping strategies, including positive interpretation and actions aimed at achieving a solution (Carver et al., 1989; Connor-Smith and Flachsbart, 2007; Iwanaga et al., 2004). Because individuals with positive affectivity are considered more likely to fit the requirements of service work (Morris and Feldman, 1996; Tan et al., 2003), it would be interesting to understand whether these individuals use their social skills to more effectively cope with rudeness from customers.
One situational factor that may be associated with coping behavior is job autonomy. In the context of service work, job autonomy is assumed to be an important organizational resource that has the potential to buffer the negative consequences of job stressors (Abraham, 2000; Dollard et al., 2003; Grandey et al., 2005; Morris and Feldman, 1996; Schat and Kelloway, 2000). However, the relationship between autonomy and strategies for coping with verbal abuse from customers is yet to be examined. A perceived sense of control over work tasks reduces the extent to which customer aggression is appraised as stressful (Grandey et al., 2004), and is likely to enhance an employee's appraisal of his or her ability to cope with stressful organizational events. Hence, a perceived sense of control should be related to more effective coping, yet freedom to select the coping response might also result in higher levels of potentially dysfunctional strategies, such as venting negative emotions to customers. It has been suggested (Morris and Feldman, 1996; Holman, 2003), that employees who have greater autonomy are less likely to control their negative emotions and more likely to violate organizational display rules when those rules conflict with their own genuinely-felt emotions. Reynolds and Harris (2006) provided strong evidence that employees subjected to direct control or supervision adopt a façade of customer orientation. However, once free of such control, they adopt a wide range of tactics to cope with difficult customers, some of which violate organizational procedures.
In addition, the present results suggest that the pervasiveness of coping behaviors that entail a violation of work demands may differ across work environments. Thus, it might be beneficial for future studies to first identify coping responses likely to be common within a specific work environment or service sector.
Understanding the factors that underlie coping behaviors is an important first step in trying to manage such behaviors. The present results suggest that NA, or neuroticism, is associated with the use of emotion-focused coping strategies in response to customer mistreatment. Given that some of these strategies are likely to impair the quality of service provided to customers, these findings may have some practical implications with respect to the goal of providing the best possible service to customers. They draw attention to the importance of considering stable personality factors in the process of selecting employees for service roles and strengthen the evidence suggesting that individuals with NA are less likely to fit the requirements of customer service work (Morris and Feldman, 1996; Tan et al., 2003). Since the role of NA in determining coping behaviors – and consequently, the quality of service provided to customers – may be especially crucial in highly stressful conditions, management is advised to also consider the extent to which verbal abuse from customers might be expected in a given job. When the probability of encountering negative customer behaviors is high – as in the case of call center work (Deery et al., 2002) – hiring those who have the potential to better cope with stress (i.e. low on neuroticism and NA), is of particular importance.
The present findings further indicate that employees who believe in their ability to successfully handle aggressive customers were less likely to engage in emotion-focused coping strategies and were less affected by frequent interactions with aggressive customers. Organizations may have an important role in enhancing the confidence of employees in their service delivery-related skills. More specifically, management might consider initiating ongoing training sessions, where employees are encouraged to openly share their past experiences with customers and are provided with problem-focused coping skills, as well as advice and tips on how to deal with rude customers, or how to set limits on unacceptable behavior. By providing employees with coping skills and tools to defend themselves when they are being mistreated, organizations can help service workers not only to have more confidence in their abilities to deal with difficult customers, but also to view these customers in a less threatening way. Consequently, the extent to which emotion-focused coping strategies are employed may be reduced. Furthermore, given that seeking support from coworkers was the most common strategy reported by employees, ongoing training sessions are valuable also because they offer frequent opportunities for service workers to share their experiences, discuss common challenges and get emotional support from their coworkers. Providing employees with opportunities to interact more frequently can help satisfy the need for social support and can serve to reduce the extent to which emotional support is exchanged during work time.
In addition, to lessen the need for workers to employ emotion-focused coping strategies, employees might be taught optimal ways of thinking and behaving when dealing with abusive customers. These may include learning how to separate personal emotions from the inherent demands of the job or how to interpret verbal aggression in a detached manner (Dollard et al., 2003; Dormann and Zapf, 2004), so that the intensity of negative emotions experienced is reduced. Learning how to reduce negative emotions during service interactions is beneficial to all employees, but even more so to those with a negative disposition, since they are more likely to appraise encounters with aggressive customers as particularly stressful (Grandey et al., 2004), and to employ emotion-focused coping strategies.
Customer verbal aggression is one job stressor that appears to be inevitable for service workers. Although organizations have almost no control over customer behavior, they can – through training and support – reduce the sense of threat their employees feel when exposed to customer verbal abuse and increase their sense of self-efficacy. Strengthening employee self-efficacy is one step that organizations can take to help reduce both job burnout and the use of dysfunctional coping strategies, and to thereby contribute to the quality of interaction with customers.
Figure 1Moderating effect of NA on the relationship between frequency of customer aggression and behavioral disengagement
Figure 2Moderating effect of NA on the relationship between frequency of customer aggression and venting
Figure 3Moderating effect of self-efficacy on the relationship between customer aggression and venting
Figure 4Moderating effect of self-efficacy on the relationship between customer aggression and seeking support
Figure 5Moderating effect of self-efficacy on the relationship between customer aggression and emotional exhaustion
Table IMeans, SD, and correlations of Study 1 variables
Table IIResults of moderated regression analyses (Study 1)
Table IIIMeans, SD, and correlations of Study 2 variables
Table IVResults of moderated regression analyses (Study 2)
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About the author
Ruhama Goussinsky, PhD, is a Lecturer in the Human Services departments in Emek Yezreel College and Haifa University, Israel. Her primary research is on emotions and emotions in the organization. In 2008 she published (with Professor Ben-Ze'ev) a book entitled In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press, UK. Ruhama Goussinsky can be contacted at: email@example.com